James P. Cannon

Socialist Appeal

November 30, 1940

Militarism and Worker’s Rights

Written: 1940
Source: Socialist Appeal
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack

Second of three articles in the Socialist Appeal on SWP military policy.

Our resolution on military policy proclaims no new principle, but attempts to apply the old principles of Bolshevism to the new conditions. In line with all the programmatic documents of the Fourth International, the resolution says: “The imperialist war is not our war and the militarism of the capitalist state is not our militarism. . . .We are against the war as a whole just as we are against the rule of the class that conducts it, and never under any circumstances vote to give them any confidence in their conduct of the war or preparations for it—not a man, not a cent, not a gun with our support. Our war is the war of the working class against the capitalist order.” (Socialist Appeal, October 5.)

So much for the principled position of Trotskyism, which alone among all the tendencies in the international labor movement remains consistently revolutionary in times of war as well as in times of peace. But, despite our opposition, we have the militarism and tomorrow we will have the war in full scope. That does not change our principle, but it imposes upon us a certain line of tactics since we do not want to remain aloof as mere oppositionists. We do not rest content with general opposition to capitalism and general advocacy of the socialist revolution and simply repeat our ultimate aims as a set of soul-saving formulas.

We seek in each and every situation to devise the tactical slogans around which we may carry on continuous and effective agitation leading toward the goal. The problem of the hour is to find a realistic basis for our irreconcilable class agitation in the arena of war and militarism which now, and for a whole epoch, will dominate the world. This is the aim of our resolution on military policy.

Our military program is intended as a program of agitation. In order to be effective such a program must take into account not, only the objective circumstance (the epoch of militarism), but also the present consciousness and mood of the workers. The American workers are against war, they are fearful of war, yet they are convinced in their bones that it is unavoidable and that the millions of young men who are being drafted and sent up for military training are destined to be cannon fodder. A comrade writes from Buffalo: “A large section of the working class, and perhaps all of it subconsciously, regards the draft for what it is: going to war. Even the National Guardsmen who left town last month were accompanied by weeping mothers and sweethearts.” The workers like to hear the promises of Roosevelt and Willkie that American boys will not be sent into foreign wars, but the great mass of them do not believe a word of it. Neither do they believe the isolationist and pacifist liars who say it is possible under capitalism to “keep America out of war.” The workers are profoundly impressed by the fate of the European countries which have been overrun by Hitler’s army. They hate and fear fascism. So far they see it incarnated only in the foreign foe, and they are ready if necessary to go to war against it, especially if the war is presented to them, as it surely will be, in the guise of “defense” against a “foreign” attack. Facing the prospect of war it is obvious to the serious-minded workers that military training is needed. That is why they submitted universally to conscription; without enthusiasm, it is true, but also without any serious opposition. This attitude of the rank and file of the American working class is a thousand times more practical and realistic than that of the pacifist muddleheads who proclaim the necessity of socialism and yet oppose compulsory military training—in a world gone mad with militarism.

Our military resolution takes the foregoing circumstances, objective and subjective, as its point of departure and attempts to show the workers how to carry on their daily struggle against the bosses over into the new field of militarism.

The American workers have made great advances in the last six years. Millions of new recruits have been drawn into the trade union movement for the first time. They have had to fight every inch of the way to gain the smallest concessions, and then to fight all over again, and continuously, to keep them. In the course of these fights the workers have developed a fervent devotion to their unions. They have learned to hate and distrust the bosses who directly exploit them and the police and local authorities who help the bosses.

In strike after strike the militant American workers have demonstrated that they have no fear of direct clashes with these local authorities and police. But in their overwhelming majority, the workers still think of the national government as something different. They respect it and at the same time they fear it as a remote power, which cannot be combatted. The average militant trade unionist, who considers a battle with local cops as a part of the day’s business in a strike, is inclined to flinch away from any conflict with “the man with the whiskers,” the popular name for the federal government and its police agents.

“You can’t strike against the government”—this is not only the dictum of Roosevelt, but also the feeling of the great majority of workers at the present time. Some of them think they have a right to do it, as was shown by the strikes against the WPA,28 but the great majority approach any prospect of a conflict with the federal government with the feeling that “you can’t get away with it.” These illusions of the workers are the ace card up the sleeve of the American imperialists.

A letter from a Toledo comrade highlights this attitude: “I and other comrades have noticed in agitating at employment offices on our military program the following response. While workers agreed that military training is needed and express distrust of the methods of the present conscription bill, they are extremely skeptical of the possibility of getting the unions to control training or of winning union conditions in the army. ’You can’t strike against the government.’ ’If you agitate in the army you will be shot.’ ’You need trained military men to have good training.’ These are the three most common answers. . . . Even some of the politically developed sympathizers of the party say that our program has value only in an agitational sense but that it cannot be accomplished.” (My emphasis.)

By such expressions—which are quite typical—the workers express the mistaken opinion that the class struggle ends when they leave the arena of the union and the factory and enter the new arena of war and militarism. They do not anticipate in advance the tremendous new experiences which are destined to make such a powerful impression on their minds, and that in a comparatively short time. Even the reported remarks of some of our sympathizers to the effect that our program “cannot be accomplished,” reveal an unconscious tendency to accept as permanent a situation which is radically changing before our eyes and which will continue to change with increasing speed and sweep. Respect for the status quo is out of tune with the times. War and militarism will uproot the workers from the old environment in which their present convictions were formed, impose new and terrible experiences upon them, and compel them to think in new terms.

The workers have yet to learn that the government, which now appears as a sacrosanct institution standing above the classes, is in reality the executive committee of all the bosses. Experience under the conditions of militarism and war, aided by our agitation, will teach this necessary lesson in the coming period. In the course of these developments our program, if we present it with simplicity and clarity, will not only have success in an “agitational sense”; the awakening workers will pass over its extremely modest and elementary demands as advancing troops pass over a bridge to a new point of vantage.

The army of conscription will be different from the comparatively small standing army we have known, and the change will be all for the better. The “volunteer” army has been recruited for the most part from the ranks of the half-starved unemployed. They have been isolated from the people, helpless and unable to get a hearing. It was customary to think of these soldiers as having no human rights whatever, no means of redress. “If you agitate in the army you will be shot.” Contemptible are those, opponents of compulsory military service who, at the same time, directly or indirectly support this monstrous militarism of the “volunteer” variety.

In the army of conscription the situation will be radically changed. It will consist of millions of young workers—the proletariat in arms! They are accustomed to certain rights. Their mighty numbers will confer a sense of power upon them. It will not be possible to treat them like cattle for any length of time without creating a profound discontent in their ranks.

Our military transitional program is not for a day, but for, tomorrow, for a long time. If only a part of the militant workers take interest in it and regard it as a good thing if it could be accomplished—that is already a gratifying initial success. It is up to us then to convince these workers that our demands are reasonable and practical in the present situation, and fully within their rights, as indeed they are.

Our aim, it must always be remembered, is not to convince quibbling factional opponents who wage a fictitious political struggle in the form of literary exercises, but workers who take the question, as they take all questions, seriously. That is why we hinge our agitation around illustrations from the life they know, that of the factory and the union. Their class attitude in the factory is the product of their experience, aided by the agitation of the more conscious elements. The right of the workers to organization, to have union officers of their own choosing, to be presented by shop committees of their own trusted people—these precious and necessary rights were not conferred upon our workers by benevolent bosses or an impartial government. In fact, they also were once “illegal,” and more than one worker has been “shot” for advocating them. The workers’ conviction that they need these things in the factory, in order to set limits to oppression and exploitation, is the result of their experience.

Their skepticism regarding the possibility of realizing analogous conditions in the field of militarism arises from the fact that for them it is as yet unexplored territory. But they will soon discover that the oppression, exploitation, and class discrimination, which are the substance of their daily lives as workers, reappear also in the Prussianized militarism of the capitalist state in a form that is more intensive, more brutal, and more contemptuous of human life. The military experience of the workers will come powerfully to the aid of our program, giving it a burning actuality, and make it the banner of their first struggles for a minimum of class independence and self protection. Our program anticipates this experience and attempts to prepare the minds of the workers for a speedier and more conscious reaction to it.

Our slogans carry the class line into the new conditions of militarism. In the factory a militant trade unionist wouldn’t trust an employer or an agent of the employers as far as he can kick an anvil in his bare feet. But in the military machine, in the present setup, the officer corps from top to bottom is dominated by people of this boss type—class enemies who regard the workers in the ranks as cannon fodder, and have no regard for their welfare and safety. Why shouldn’t the workers, in such a situation, put forth the demand for officers from the ranks of the workers and the unions?

Haven’t the workers, who are risking their lives for “democracy,” the right to a little democracy for themselves? Out of billions of dollars of federal funds appropriated for military purposes, why shouldn’t a certain sum—be earmarked for the establishment of special camps to train workers to become officers? What’s wrong about such a demand? And, for that matter, what is “illegal” about it? Indeed, if a serious militant worker who hates and distrusts the bosses and their agents for good reason will stop to think about it, he must be impressed by the extreme modesty of the demands of our transitional program. They represent not the last word, but rather the first. Most workers today have the illusion that the class lineup, which confronts him in the factory and on the picket line, is by some miracle eliminated in the domain of war and militarism. Our program of transitional demands, proceeding from the Marxist principle which never recognizes a suspension of the class struggle in the class society, is designed to break this illusion, this fetish. That is the purpose of our agitation around the program.

In my speech to our Chicago conference, I devoted a big section to our agitational approach to the workers who think it necessary to defend the country against fascism by military means, but imagine it has to be left in full charge of the bourgeois rulers. I argued against this prejudice in terms and by means of illustrations which I thought might be effectively employed by our party agitators. I summed up a whole section devoted to such arguments with the following statement: “The workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler and anybody else who tries to invade their rights. That is the whole principle of the new policy that has been elaborated for us by Comrade Trotsky. The great difference between this and the socialist military policy in the past is that it is an extension of the old policy, an adaptation of old principles to new conditions.

From a reading of the text of my speech it is clear beyond possibility of misunderstanding that I was arguing against the prejudices of the workers and not against any principles hitherto maintained by our movement. On the contrary, I took pains to assert that our new concrete practical slogans are simply “an extension of the old policy, an adaptation of old principles to new conditions.” My speech as a whole as well as the resolution adopted at the Chicago conference and the published letters and comments of Comrade Trotsky on the subject are all permeated with this idea. We stand, now as before, on the principles of Bolshevism and we aim to advance these principles by a transitional program in the military epoch.

Anyone who wants to conduct an honest dispute with us must begin by stating our actual position fairly and honestly and then criticize us from one of two standpoints: (1) the principles of Bolshevism are wrong and, likewise, the practical slogans designed to apply them; or, (2) the transitional program violates the principles of Bolshevism on war.

Shachtman, writing in Labor Action (November 4) employed a different method of attack, a method designed not to clarify, but to confuse. At the beginning of his article, as the first “point” which sets the tone and shapes the character of this article as a whole, he “lifts” my above-quoted statement out of its context and tries to make it appear that I am arguing not against the prejudices of the workers but against the principles of the modern Trotskyist movement! Then, with mock seriousness, he asks: “Of which old policy is our military program an extension?”—and solemnly pretends that I may have been speaking of the policy of the “Liberals, social-democrats and Stalinists.” Then, after explaining to us that “Trotsky above all taught the movement that the workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler,” he ends the first “point” and premise of his article with the devastating question: “If that was the ’whole principle of the new policy’ what was the principle of the ’old’ policy?”

But I had explained in the sentences he quoted, and can only repeat here again, that we are not enunciating any different principle but simply attempting to apply “old principles to new conditions.” But Shachtman obviously calculates that by the time he gets to the end of his juggled and misapplied quotation the casual and unsuspecting reader will be too muddled and confused to know the difference. To answer him it is only necessary to go back and show what we really said and what we really meant. The interested reader, who takes the trouble to read the quotations in their context—and that is an absolutely necessary precaution whenever Shachtman is “quoting”—can get the matter straight. He will also get an insight into the polemical methods of Shachtman which became so notorious in the factional struggle which he conducted jointly with Burnham against Trotsky and the majority of our party. He became known to the adult members of our movement as an unscrupulous “twister” of quotations and a perverter of historical incidents to serve factional contentions. In his lengthy attack on the military policy adopted by our party, Shachtman runs true to form from beginning to end. The dubious methods which he employed in his premise are maintained throughout the article. Misrepresentation is followed by falsification and reinforced with a spice of outright literary forgery. In debating with Shachtman one needs not a pen but a pair of hip boots and a shovel in order to dig down and clear away the filth which he piles over the essence of every dispute. It is not a very agreeable task but in the line of duty, I shall return to it again, insofar as the exposure of these methods of political underworld helps to facilitate the explanation and clarification of our military transitional program to workers who are seriously and honestly interested in the question—the most important and burning question affecting their lives.